LGBT Pride and Protest: A First-Hand Report From Sofia, Bulgaria

Published: June 23, 2013

Pride has always been a tense time in Sofia, Bulgaria, where I have lived for the last four years. In 2008, the year of the first Pride (not coincidentally, Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007), the parade was disrupted by a group of nationalists, who assaulted participants and threw Molotov cocktails. In subsequent years Pride has proceeded without incident, though with a heavy police presence. In 2010, the first year I participated, there were many more police than marchers, most of them in full riot gear, and a phalanx of armored vehicles escorted us on either side of the street.

Still, each year the number of participants has almost doubled, and support from foreign embassies and local public figures has also grown. Media coverage has gradually become more positive, and now one seldom hears words like pedal (faggot) or obraten (queer) in television commentary, as I did often during my first year here. Last year, just before Pride, I was amazed to see a short television profile of a lesbian couple and their child on Bulgarian National Television—a portrait that presented them without any sensationalism, but simply as what they were: an entirely normal family. It felt to me like a revolutionary moment.

Sofia PrideSo it has been deeply disheartening that this year’s Pride events have been marred by violence. I was shocked to learn that in Plovdiv, the country’s second largest city, an LGBT film festival was violently disrupted by hooligans. The film festival (the city’s first) had already been a source of controversy, with the local Metropolitan of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church declaring that LGBT people “destroy the souls of our children”—rhetoric that is not at all uncommon here. When a local soccer club—powerful social groups in a country obsessed with the sport—denounced the festival as “gay propaganda,” the mayor of the city responded not by defending principles of human rights or freedom of expression, but instead by declaring himself “categorically opposed to all events that divide the citizens of Plovdiv.”

On the fifth night of the festival, a group of nationalists entered the bar where that night’s film was being shown. According to LGBT-Plovdiv’s press release, one man asked, “Is this the faggots’ screening,” before promising that the first LGBT film festival would be the last. As they left, they broke the projection equipment. Although the city had promised security for the event, and though there had been an attempted disruption of an earlier screening, there was no police presence; according to organizers, it took twenty minutes for police to respond to a call for help. Bravely, organizers continued the festival the next night, and—now with police protection—it passed without further incident.

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